South Bend school bus drivers get pandemic bonuses after delay but face shortages, lack of contract

Sep 21, 2021

The $1500 bonus comes from the district’s federal pandemic relief money. All full-time district employees received it on Sept. 17, except for the bus drivers.
Credit Jeanie Lindsay/IPB News


The South Bend Community School Corporation approved a one-time COVID-19 bonus for its bus drivers during the Sept. 21 board meeting. Many drivers appreciated the stipend, but are still frustrated over staff shortages and the lack of a union contract.

The $1500 comes from the district’s federal pandemic relief money. All full-time district employees received it on Sept. 17, except for the bus drivers.


Now, they’ll be getting it on Oct. 1 after the board unanimously approved an agreement to award the bonuses.


School board president John Arnella said that the bonus wasn’t paid to the district’s transportation workers at the same time as everyone else because the district is still negotiating a contract with their union, AFSCME Local 686.


“We don’t want you to be short changed,” Arnella said. “We know how much work you do and how important this is. So we don’t want to hold that up.”


Drivers present during the meeting applauded the agreement, but also criticized the board’s actions and called it a “bully tactic."


Union president Mozell Bowens said the two sides have not been able to come to a contract agreement due to disagreements over compensation, and that he was told the drivers would not receive their bonuses until a contract was agreed to.


He thanked the board for separately approving the bonuses, but said it should have happened sooner.


“It shouldn’t have to get to this point,” Bowens said. “It’s almost like we have to beg the corporation to do right by the bus drivers.”


Driver Kandace DeMeyer said 20 to 30 of the district’s buses broke down during the first week of school.


She thanked the board for the stipend, but said it should not have taken this long and hopes the board appreciates the work the drivers put in during the pandemic.


The district made national news last August when it distributed 35 Wi-Fi equipped buses around the city so students who did not have internet access at home could attend virtual classes.


“If it wasn’t for us, you wouldn’t have been nationally known,” DeMeyer said.


Driver Andrew Campbell agreed.


“We are the ones that sat on the hot buses, driving your Wi-Fi, passing out your lunches,” Campbell said. “We did not have to do that. We did not have to suffer and sweat to garner your national attention.”


The ongoing contract negotiations are taking place during a nationwide shortage of school bus drivers — earlier this month, a national survey of student-transportation coordinators found a “severe and desperate shortage”.


Some Michigan districts are offering signing bonuses, and Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker activated the National Guard last week to drive buses.


Due to the shortage, South Bend has adjusted start times for schools so fewer buses can serve more routes, the South Bend Tribune reported Monday.


According to the Tribune, the new tiered schedules have elementary schools in session from 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., middle schools from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and high schools from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.


Pamela Lewis has been a bus driver for 18 years. She said drivers deserve higher salaries, especially as many businesses in the area are desperate to hire workers.


“You seem to treat us as though we don’t have any options, but we do — and many of us already have or will continue to explore those other options,” Lewis said. “We don’t care to be told that we’re part of team South Bend but then treated like the last kid to be called for dodgeball.”


The district is currently offering a $1500 signing bonus for new drivers, which Lewis also took issue with.


“South Bend schools doesn’t seem to care about keeping the employees you have,” Lewis said. “We’re tired of being told how much we’re appreciated, what a good job we’re doing, but then you’ll offer a sign-on bonus to new drivers and to hell with us.”


Several board members said they were not aware the bus drivers did not receive bonuses at the same time as the rest of the district, and immediately wanted to rectify that once they found out.


“The first time I heard that you did not receive your stipends was from two bus drivers from my church,” board member Jeanette McCullough said. “My sister’s a bus driver, and I do appreciate you and I hear you.”


Contract negotiations are continuing.


Contact Jakob at or follow him on Twitter at @JakobLazzaro.


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